America’s poor have risen and fallen as objects of politics in cycles of 30 to 50 years, and in the era of Barack Obama and the tea party they have scaled yet another peak.

The great battles of our time are altogether about whether to provide federal subsidies to buy health insurance for people who are too poor to afford it and whether to reduce or eliminate the government’s food aid, unemployment benefits, housing assistance and Medicare and Social Security benefits — the safety net that is supposed to relieve people of the circumstances of low incomes and meager assets.


But for one side in this ancient skirmish, which we may generically refer to as the Republican Party, the terms of the poverty argument are starkly different from the past.

The argument was always what to do about the underclass, what with all the Bible’s pronouncements about the prevalence of the poor and its exhortations that the privileged of society help them, sometimes with heaven or hell as the reward or punishment for doing so or not. Republicans and Democrats and sometimes a populist third party, as in the 1890s, offered starkly different approaches to the problem.


Democrats proposed government intervention to help the poor — Social Security, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, work programs and food and credit relief in the Great Depression’s New Deal and the antipoverty programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Republicans had a different, often vaguer, approach that generally included a smaller government role, but they did have an approach.

President Nixon’s antidote to poverty and to the failures of Johnson’s Great Society was a universal health insurance program, much like Obama’s except it would have put the burden on all American employers to provide health insurance for their employees with the government taking care of the others. He proposed a guaranteed minimum income for all workers — the government, of course, providing the guarantee.


Democrats didn’t give him the pleasure on either plan, although another Republican, Ronald Reagan, carried through modestly in 1986 on Nixon’s idea of a guaranteed income: the earned-income tax credit. Reagan bragged that he had achieved the biggest antipoverty program in history. He sent checks to people who didn’t earn enough to pay much if any federal income taxes. 2012 Republicans, following the lead of Mitt Romney, looked askance at the people Reagan bragged about helping — the freeloading 47 percent who didn’t, in 2011, owe income taxes.

For three years, during the angriest national debate since secession, over whether the government should try to provide health insurance for people who can’t afford it, economic reports have steadily announced a widening disparity in incomes, a sharp growth in poverty, especially among children, a downward plunge in the prosperity of the median American and a rise in homelessness.

Democrats have offered nothing new, except health reform and a continuation of the safety net, while Republicans, or at least the outspoken varieties, have offered something new, denial: Poverty is not a problem, or not one that begs to be solved, and those who are labeled as poor really don’t have it bad at all. The real problem is government efforts to help the poor, which are punishing those of us who are successful and destroying the fiber of the unfortunate ones who strive in the lower class.

At root, that is the debate in 2014 elections across the country, including races for Congress here in Arkansas, notably the expensive battle for the Senate between the evangelical Sen. Mark Pryor, who cites the teachings of Jesus, and Rep. Tom Cotton, who joined the fight to slash food aid, unemployment, Medicaid and Medicare. The slick ads put it in more elegant terms (it’s all about Barack Obama), but that is the fight.


Both the deniers and the defenders are armed with research from the dueling ranks of academic economists, which tender their views in lengthy tracts and in op-ed articles in the likes of the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Economists at George Mason University and the University of Michigan-Flint — and others as well — make the case that the life of the poor and the middle class has not been worsening and is much better than it seems. While middle- and lower-class incomes have indeed been stagnant for quite some time while the rich get far richer, the inequality between what people actually consume from week to week — a measure of their relative well-being — has not been growing at all in recent years. That is because the cost of the necessities of life has been falling as a percentage of a proportion of income.

So all this concern about growing deprivation and suffering, they say, is groundless. The best source for these studies is the Wall Street Journal op-ed archives.

The other side is not bereft. Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, wrote a piece contending that rapidly rising disparities in income and wealth was wreaking havoc on the country’s well-being and its future and is the principal reason for the nation’s economic collapse in 2008 and its continuing torpor. The Economic Policy Institute published world rankings showing the overall poverty rate and poverty among children in the U.S. tripling the rates in northern Europe and doubling those in troubled southern Europe.

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics charts showed that while incomes of two-parent households had grown 20 percent between 1990 and 2008, health care costs grew 155 percent, housing costs grew 56 percent, and the cost of going to a public college grew 60 percent.

And then there are your own eyes. When food stamps were slashed Nov. 1, soup kitchens and food banks from Little Rock to New York City were overwhelmed.